New research funded by Australian Rotary Health is the first to show that social processing difficulties in Autism Spectrum Disorder and Williams Syndrome may occur when they see faces paired with biographical information.

Kelsie Boulton from Macquarie University was awarded an Australian Rotary Health Funding Partner PhD Scholarship (co-funded by the Rotary Club of Illawarra Sunrise) from 2015-2018, to explore social processing in Autism, Williams syndrome, and social anxiety disorder.

The project used a variety of experimental measures such as eye-tracking, attention and emotional recognition measures to explore social processing, with one focus being how biographical information can influence social processing in individuals with these conditions.

“Who we pay attention to, how we look at faces, and who we choose to approach or avoid, are important social processing skills,” Kelsie said.

“Most of us easily use these skills to engage in social interactions, but people with disorders like Autism and Williams Syndrome experience difficulty.”

In Kelsie’s research she found that people with Autism spent more time looking at the eyes of negative biographical faces and less attention to both negative and positive biographical faces. While people with Williams syndrome spent more time looking at the eyes of positive biographical faces and paid more attention to positive faces.

“Findings show that knowing important biographical information about a face affects this processing,” Kelsie said.

“These findings suggest that social withdrawal seen in Autism might come from a tendency to look at negative social information more than positive social information, as well as a generally decreased interest in social information.”

“Whereas, the increased sociability common in Williams Syndrome might come from a tendency to look at and focus on positive social information, rather than negative social information.”

This research was a world-first in looking at how biographical information can influence social processing in these individuals.

“These findings provide a springboard for further research, and for the development of interventions to improve social functioning in these conditions,” Kelsie said.

Kelsie has so far submitted 5 journal articles to peer-reviewed journals for publication and has presented her findings at a number of national and international conferences. Kelsie has also since been awarded a Higher Degree Research Excellence Award and the David Hall Prize for Outstanding Higher Degree Research Thesis for her work.

Kelsie intends to apply for a Macquarie University Research Fellowship this year to continue her research.

 

Media contact: Jessica Cooper – (02) 8837 1900 or jessica@arh.org.au